My mom, Joyce, could be a difficult woman. She has been gone for four years today. A hard worker, she was in constant motion. I rarely saw her just relax. She cared for my grandmother, Christine, who had a stroke when I was in elementary school, for over a decade. When I say cared for her, I mean my grandmother lived in my home until the stroke necessitated the full-time care only a nursing home could provide. Joyce went there every day, sometimes twice. Joyce did not have many friends, but she got her fill of human interaction from her job working retail. Momma loved a great tomato, homemade ice cream, early morning telephone conversations with my sister, and poodles, with names like Snoopy, Fluffy, Oscar and Josh.
I had the privilege to write her obituary. Here is an excerpt.
If you ever met Joyce, you would not forget her. A servant at heart, she was busy and bold…She laughed hard when she did, and she always spoke her mind. She spent hours at the ballpark during the heat of the Mississippi summer, and she had one of the biggest azalea bushes in the neighborhood. She grew strawberries, cucumbers and other vegetables in her backyard, and she loved a good watermelon, growing a few of those through the years too. Suffering great loss in her life, she ceaselessly persevered, not being one to look back much. Forward was her preferred direction…
Joyce had a long career in retail sales, and when she spoke, you could not help but listen, whether you liked what she had to say or not. Alongside her husband, she modeled an insatiable work ethic, a blessing she passed along to her children and grandchildren. She would journal events in the life of her family, and she loved old Baptist hymns, humming them in the car on the way home from Oak Forest Baptist Church.
My mom’s love for dogs, specifically poodles, was somehow transferred to me. My brother, Keith, loves them too. We have one named Wilson and one we call Bear. Wilson came from a little house in Copiah County. My friend labeled him a Crystal Springs Bichon of the Copiah County Kennel Club. When we got him, he was covered in fleas. Sort of makes my skin crawl when I type about it. We washed him in blue Dawn soap at the suggestion of a coworker, and he has never had a flea problem since. A few years ago, after a significant propaganda campaign by my younger daughter, Emma, we got Bear. He is only half poodle. Bear’s breeding is much better on paper, but he is mischievous or as Joyce Robertson would say, ornery. For those readers born later than 1980, ornery means uncooperative and rebellious.
My family and I live in what the book Generation X calls a McMansion with three garage doors. Whenever a member of our family is pulling into the driveway and hits the button in their car to open one of the bays, Bear and Wilson excitedly rush to the adjacent door. I adore seeing my family, but I must say the warm greeting from our poodle companions when I step inside the house is a highlight of every day. They love unconditionally and are always glad to see me. They greet Rachel, Mollie Ann and Emma the exact same way. They are our live-in therapists.
Earlier this week, I was sitting with a woman close to my age to help her gather information about a possible divorce. She explained her husband was a covert narcissist. Obviously, I encounter narcissists routinely in my practice, both male and female. We wrote about it in this August 21, 2022 blog article. Intrigued about the adjective “covert”, I read a little online. The following passage from a Forbes article explains the differences:
Covert narcissism—also referred to as vulnerable narcissism—has been described as the “more silent and subtle variation” of narcissism. This type of narcissist shares the same overarching traits of the personality disorder—an inflated sense of self, a lack of empathy for others and an excessive need for admiration and attention—but manifests these traits in a less obvious way.
People with overt narcissism tend to display a high level of self-esteem and extraversion, while those with covert narcissism tend to have a lower sense of self-esteem which may result in defensiveness, feelings of insecurity and self-consciousness. Still, covert narcissists maintain an inflated sense of self and lack empathy for others.
Further, covert narcissism has been found to have a higher correlation with introversion and neuroticism, whereas overt narcissism is generally more correlated with extraversion and higher levels of agreeableness.
One of the things that struck me from my conversation with this potential client was her mentioning of the rush of anxiety associated with the sound of the garage door. Let’s face it, notwithstanding what a person wants you to see on social media, nobody other than its inhabitants really knows what is happening in a home when the garage doors are closed. This mother of two explained when she hears the sound of the garage door, a visceral reaction of dread floods her nervous system, and she immediately begins the eggshell-dance that has been a constant in her life. While she is not being physically abused, she has been ruthlessly criticized, which has conditioned her to jump into busyness, sort of like my mom did without provocation, so as not to be called lazy or useless. She said “The moment I hear it open fear can overwhelm me. I start cleaning or just start trying to look busy when (my husband) walks in the door. I want to disappear. I’ve lived this so many times over the years. The garage door invokes fear. Fear of what mood he is going to be in. Fear of what he will find wrong with me sitting on the couch reading and not doing something productive. Fear of judgement. Fear of anger or annoyance.”
Abusers do not just use fists.
They use coercion and threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, and money to accomplish their selfish agendas, highlighted by minimization, denial and blaming. A covert narcissist evokes panic and angst with condescending looks, mind games, gaslighting and jealousy. It impacts more than just the spouse, as the children also tend to scatter for the very same reasons when the garage door sounds. I suspect Wilson and Bear would even learn to take cover if they lived in the home of an abusive covert narcissist when he pushes the button in his truck to make the garage door move.
Joyce Robertson without fear or hesitation would call him a selfish jackass.
Are you living in fear? Does your heart skip a beat when the garage door sounds? Is your live-in pet therapist inadequate to calm the inescapable anxiety you suffer every day? Close your eyes. Hold out your hand. Imagine a trusted friend placing a key in your hand. Put the imaginary key in your pocket.
You hold the key to your own prison. Leap and the net will appear.
Craig Robertson is the founder of Robertson + Easterling. For over 23 years, he has practiced exclusively high net worth divorce and complicated family law in Mississippi. He has helped many people gain freedom from narcissists, whether labeled overt and covert.